Focus |

Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture

Feeding a growing and increasingly affluent population is clashing with efforts to conserve habitat and natural resources. Sustainable intensification, an effort to increase crop yields with fewer inputs and without expanding land use, seeks to balance these priorities.

This Focus brings together research and opinion on this agricultural and societal challenge. The collection also gathers select, relevant articles from other Nature Research journals. 


A growing, increasingly affluent and urban human population is driving demand for more food grown in more-sustainable ways. This issue features a suite of articles highlighting how intensification of production on existing farmland and with fewer inputs is an aspirational and data-hungry challenge.

Editorial | | Nature Sustainability

The global food system must become more sustainable. Digital agriculture — digital and geospatial technologies to monitor, assess and manage soil, climatic and genetic resources — illustrates how to meet this challenge so as to balance the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable food production.

Comment | | Nature Sustainability

Energy fuels, and is central to, all physical and biological systems, including the human population and economy. Yet science has missed the significance of civilization’s growing energy consumption. The energetics of the global food system illustrate the counterintuitive aspects of present energy consumption circumstances.

Comment | | Nature Sustainability

Further reading

Identifying economic and ecological trade-offs of land-use transitions is important to ensure sustainability. Here, Grass et al. find biodiversity-profit trade-offs in tropical land-use transitions in Sumatra, and show that targeted landscape planning is needed to increase land-use efficiency while ensuring socio-ecological sustainability.

Article | Open Access | | Nature Communications

The increase in needs for agricultural commodities is projected to outpace the growth of farmland production globally, leading to high pressure on farming systems in the next decades. Here, the authors investigate the future impact of cropland expansion and intensification on agricultural markets and biodiversity, and suggest the need for balancing agricultural production with conservation goals.

Article | Open Access | | Nature Communications

Two and a half billion smallholder farmers collectively manage 60 per cent of the world's arable land. How these farmers perform determines their own livelihood, but also affects global food security and ecosystem health. Here, Fusuo Zhang and colleagues show how some straightforward interventions have substantially improved the productivity and environmental performance of smallholder farmers across China over the past ten years. The team carried out more than 13,000 field trials across China's main agroecological zones and found that a series of management practices, collectively termed integrated soil–crop system management, increased maize, wheat and rice yields, nitrogen-use efficiency and farmer profitability. Scaling this approach up to 20.9 million smallholder farmer across 452 counties boosted grain yields to 33 million tonnes over the ten-year period, and reduced fertilizer use by 1.2 million tonnes and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 13 per cent.

Letter | | Nature

Ensuring an environmentally friendly overhaul of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy will entail payments for environmental objectives, promoting High Nature Value Farmlands, improved flexibility and policy integration.

Comment | | Nature Ecology & Evolution

Closing the gap between realized and potential crop yields is key to sustainably feeding the world's growing population. Fusuo Zhang and colleagues report on attempts to increase wheat and maize yields of smallholder farms in four villages in Quzhou County in the North China Plain, using ten practices recommended by the Science and Technology Backyard, a co-operative research project involving agricultural scientists, local extension officers and smallholder farmers. Adoption of these practices—including alternative seed varieties, sowing times and other crop management practices—raised five-year-average yields from 68% to 97% of the attainable level on target farms, and 63% to 80% countywide. The authors suggest that this approach could be adopted in other parts of the world to help smallholder farmers achieve greater yields.

Letter | | Nature

Sustainable intensification is a concept of growing importance, yet it is in danger of becoming scientifically obsolete because of the diversity of meanings it has acquired. To avoid this, it is important to consider the various scales on which it can aid progress towards feeding human populations while also protecting the environment.

Comment | | Nature Plants

Careful management of nitrogen fertilizer usage is required to ensure food security for a growing world population while limiting environmental degradation as a consequence of nitrogen pollution. Xin Zhang et al. investigate historical patterns of agricultural nitrogen use efficiency and how socioeconomic policies and technological innovations can help improve nitrogen use efficiency and achieve the projected 2050 goals of food security and environmental stewardship.

Perspective | | Nature